Catholic U. hosts national human trafficking conference

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"We can all sprinkle pixie dust and make Congress useful - or somewhat useful - but that means nothing without a paradigm shift," said Mary Leary, a law professor at Catholic University in Washington during the morning plenary at the 2015 Conference on Human Trafficking, "Answering Pope Francis' Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-day Slavery."

It was the second day of the July 9-10 national conference at Catholic U., with 300 participants that included social workers, clergy, parish staff, lawyers and university professors. Conference sponsors included the USCCB, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic U.'s National Catholic School of Social Service.

According to Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities agencies that responded to a survey reported serving 239 human trafficking victims in the past 12 months. Victims included U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, men, women, adults and children.

Leary kicked off the morning with the presentation, "Advocating for Change in Legislative Policy," in which she summarized the history of anti-human trafficking legislation.

She cited the Palermo protocols drafted by the United Nations for their comprehensive definition of human trafficking, which includes this excerpt:

"Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."

Leary pointed out that while all 50 U.S. states now have an explicit law against human trafficking, Polaris, a national anti-slavery organization, gave 21 of those states low ratings on their laws' effectiveness.

A talk from Dana Davenport, associate director for social concerns at the Maryland Catholic Conference, focused on how to advocate for legislative change.

Davenport urged the audience to go to their state capital, attend lobby days and meet with legislators to make the "Catholic footprint" known.

"Not everyone knows the work Catholic churches and schools do," said Davenport.

She added that legislators pay attention to large groups of people.

Alex Olivares, coordinator of the Florida Gulf Coast University Regional Human Trafficking Resource Center and a counselor at the Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice, Fla., Trafficking program co-presented "Community Collaboration and Building Relationships with Regional Sources to Support a Survivor through the Process" with Sister Terry Shields, co-founder and president of Dawn's Place in Philadelphia.

"Human trafficking is the human rights issue of the 21st century," Olivares said, "Don't be confused - human trafficking is slavery."

Olivares emphasized that Catholic organizations cannot work in isolation. Strategic partnerships can help secure necessary temporary shelter, long-term housing, attorneys, mental health care, medical care, dental care and substance abuse testing for human trafficking victims and survivors.

He stressed the importance of talking to the local police force and increasing their awareness of human trafficking.

"Without law enforcement, there is no legislation," he said.

Olivares added that not every police force will recognize human trafficking as a local issue. According to Olivares, one sheriff in a town near his home of Fort Meyers, Fla. has repeatedly denied the presence of human trafficking, despite multiple arrests in the region.

"I haven't made many friends because I advocate for clients and I advocate for them forcefully," he said.

He recommended that audience members who work with victims and survivors of human trafficking do the same.

Sister Terry centered her portion of the presentation on the work done at Dawn's Place, a 10-bed shelter and therapeutic program at an undisclosed location in the Philadelphia area.

She advised the audience not to think of victims of sex trafficking "as prostitutes, but as people who've been prostituted."

Other talks focused on identifying victims, international trends in human trafficking and the legal extent to which clergy and parish staff can get involved.

Tina Frundt, a survivor of sex trafficking and founder of Courtney's House in Washington, and Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, also a survivor of labor trafficking and now a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Campaign for Fair Food, delivered the keynote address.

The total of nearly 20 speakers included Jeffrey Cook, assistant United States attorney and coordinator of the Washington, D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force; Father Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle and chairman the USCCB Committee on Migration; and Bill O'Keefe, Vice President for Government Relations and Advocacy, Catholic Relief Services.

"Human trafficking is a direct affront to the sanctity of life and dignity of the human person. The conference calls our attention to our obligation as a church to directly redress this horrible human tragedy," said William Rainford, dean of Catholic U.'s National Catholic School of Social Service.

Find out more

To learn more about the conference, visit ncsss.cua.edu/trafficking/index.cfm. To join the conversation about human trafficking on social media, search #stopslavery on Twitter and Facebook.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015